Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, wrote some of the most iconic children’s books. His granddaughter, filmmaker Chloe Dahl, sat down with Nexus Media to explain how nature ignited the author’s imagination. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did your grandfather fall in love with nature?
My grandfather had a love of nature from a very young age, perhaps even before he was born.
In his memoir Boy, he recalled how his own father, Harald, took his then-pregnant mother, Sofie, on “beautiful walks” through the Welsh countryside. He wrote, “his theory was that if the eye of a pregnant woman was constantly observing the beauty of nature, this beauty would somehow become transmitted to the mind of the unborn baby within her womb and that baby would grow up to be a lover of beautiful things.”
My grandfather’s love of the countryside was only enhanced during his childhood. This is depicted both in Boy and in My Ear. He was at home when he was in nature, both literally and metaphorically. From his hometown in Wales to the idyllic summers he spent with his grandparents in Norway, magic surrounded him — but only because he knew where to find it.
Much of his adult life was spent in the sweeping Buckinghamshire countryside, where he would lead his own children, including my mother, Lucy, on nighttime expeditions into the woods to observe nocturnal animals.
He also had a sharp eye and an expansive knowledge of birds, and enjoyed collecting birds’ eggs (this was before it was forbidden, of course). He never poached the lot, he treated each egg with a delicate touch and the utmost respect. He went so far as to use “a teaspoon so as not to leave the human finger smell behind on the other eggs.”
Did Roald Dahl follow environmental issues?
In certain ways, my grandfather was an innate environmentalist. Perhaps you could even say he was a little ahead of his time. You’d have to look no further than his lyrical descriptions of the African landscape in Going Solo.
He had a deep appreciation for nature, but lived during a time when society, as a whole, wasn’t nearly as concerned about environmental consequences and extinction as we are now. He died in 1990 before many of those issues became as socially, politically and conversationally relevant as they are now.
In Fantastic Mr. Fox, my grandfather sees the world through the eyes of a fox and his loyal gang of woodland creatures as they a battle against the evil farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean. In Danny, he allows us to see the villain, a puffed-up landowner named Victor Hazell, through the eyes of Danny and his dad in their fight for justice.
Those stories not only illustrate my grandfather’s understanding of the countryside and his deep affection for it. They also demonstrate how to resist those who destroy it through their own greed and thoughtlessness.
The Gremlins was written out of his experience as an RAF fighter-pilot in World War II. Whilst he found thrill in the adventures of flying, he was also intensely aware of the destruction being unleashed by humans and, consequently, himself.
My grandfather saw nature and its natural places as a glorious landscape, within which children could and should have their own adventures. In My Year, written late in his life, he bemoaned the thought that kids were moving away from the adventures that only nature can supply.
“Boys should want to climb trees” he said. “They should want to build tree-houses. They should want to pick apples.” And, frankly, girls should too.
Roald Dahl was driven by creativity. Why is creativity important?
Like it or not, creativity is the backbone for everything we do and every decision we make in life. My grandfather would always say, “to every problem there is a solution,” and 99.9 percent of the time this is true.
He was constantly finding creative solutions for the everyday problems, from inventing a medical shunt, to constructing a mushroom picker. So many of his books revolve around child heroes changing the world through their own creative powers. That’s why we created Roald Dahl’s Imaginormous Challenge — we are hoping to tap into (and celebrate) the very powerful creativity we know to be innate in every young person.
All the children, aged 5 to 12, had to do was submit their most imaginative and creative story ideas in 100 words or fewer to www.imaginormouschallenge.com.
The challenge has produced some amazing ideas so far. We have certainly seen the natural world featured a number of times, with many entrants being inspired by the seaside, the park and some of their other favorite outdoor environments. We’ve also seen a number of entries inspired by animals. We’ve even seen children dreaming up new and fantastical ones, such as a bunnysaurus and a rainbow cow.
The entries we have received to date have left us in awe — you can see that there are no limits to what a child’s imagination can create.
This interview was conducted by Josh Chamot, who writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.